In the great scheme of things, the deaths of Slim Aarons and Arnold Newman, two giants of portrait photography, were barely a short shutter speed apart. They died within a week of each other, at a similar age, both achieving and revealing a level of understanding of their subjects that is rarely matched.
Aarons died in his sleep on May 30, 2006 at the age of 89. Newman passed away after a short illness on June 6, 2006 at the age of 88.
James Stewart's action photojournalist character in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rear Window was reported to be based on Aarons. Over the course of his career, Aarons captured a golden age of wealth, privilege, beauty and leisure that occurred alongside – but quite separate from – the cultural and political backdrop of the second half of the 20th century.
Newman embraced both the cultural and political. Days before his death, he was plotting from his hospital room to photograph US President George W. Bush. He had wrangled portrait sessions with every US president from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. He was itching to get out and start working again.
Aarons portrayed high society, aristocracy, the celebrated and their milieu. He showed them as they saw themselves, reflecting a world Ralph Lauren and Vanity Fair try and capture via his influence. Christopher Sweet, the editor of Aarons’s most recent publications, says, “Slim had something of the snob in him and he fitted in well with that group. To be a court photographer you have to be a bit of a courtier.” His informal portraits are “almost like family snaps but taken by a master photographer,” says Sweet.
Aarons served as a combat photographer during World War II for Yank, a weekly Army magazine. After the war he became a freelance photojournalist, first based in Hollywood, then Rome and New York. When asked to cover the Korean War, “I let it be known that the only beach I was interested in landing on was one decorated with beautiful semi-nude girls just tanning in a tranquil sun,” said Aarons.
“He’d had enough of pain, suffering and war,” says Sweet. “He’d seen a lot of violent stuff and was fed up with it. He’s said he wanted to walk on the sunny side on the street.”
Aarons worked for all the glossiest magazines of the day including Life, Holiday, Town & Country, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Travel & Leisure. He traveled often to attend parties in Beverly Hills or on Park Avenue, and spent winters in Gstaad or Palm Beach, summers on the French or Italian Riviera or all around the Caribbean.